I Dreamed of Kenya

It interesting that the title of this video–shot recently by filmmaker Cary Fukunaga and commissioned by fashion brand Maiyet*–is “Sleepwalking in the Rift.” Not just alluding to dreaming, but also, because we are in the realm of genre here, to the film “I Dreamed of Africa.” The genre has its conventions. This reel, as with others in its genre, presents Africa as a dream, a phantasmic space. A juxta-modern space away from the exigencies of modern life. An elsewhere for the modern subject–usually white–to become authentic again.  To embrace the joie de vivre lacking in anodyne modernity.

And because we are in a phantasy here, in a mythopoetic geography, time is affected. The Africa here is a continent in stasis, an ant in amber. Africa is valuable and beautiful precisely because it supposedly resists the vagaries of modernity: it remains timeless. Africa is always birds, open space, sunshine, horizon, a limitless vista. And true to genre convention, there is a plane here, the tool that allows a panoptic view of this wild Africa.

But this view is mediated: notice the missing natives (sic)? The locals are derealized from this phantasmic view. Or if they are seen, they remain in the background, invisible. If going back to nature, to Africa, “appears” the white subject, makes him more visible, it has the opposite effect on the local–usually black–subject. It disappears the local. The local becomes illegible, not a distinguishable individual subject but part of the horde, an accessory to the land and to the white modern subject.

It might be a bit of a stretch, but the figure of the invisible, missing local reminds one of the phantasy of the lost white tribe in Africa. The white heterosexual couple–another convention of genre–can repopulate the land now, a land free of locals.

* You might remember one of Maiyet’s founders: a South African lawyer who parlayed his career at that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission into starting a fashion brand.

7 thoughts on “I Dreamed of Kenya

  1. Your points about the missing locals are well-founded, but not entirely sure this is a purely white fantasy – Fare Fare is Lebanese, although apparently got his “man at large in Africa” chops as a mercenary in Safe House last year.

  2. I agree that the West’s perception of Africa is hugely problematic, and that in epitomizing that vision, this film only makes the problem worse.

    But isn’t non-Africans’ fascination with Africa’s beauty just an example of a general human fascination with nature? Aren’t there just as many movies that romanticize the American West, the deserts of the Middle East, the plains of Asia?

    I know that seemingly harmless representations of Africa add up to form very harmful conceptions of the continent, but I’m also uncomfortable with pretending that films like this one have no value.

    For people with a more nuanced understanding of Africa, a film like this can be far from negative. I won’t pretend that those people are the main audience, but let’s also not pretend that they don’t exist.

  3. @jake I think you are right to some extent – but the problem is when in films like this the part is made to stand for the whole – “What do you most love about being here, in Africa?” – to quote from the film. It’s uncomfortable viewing however beautifully shot…

  4. I think the “Africa” of westerners as the writer of this piece shows is a land that is untouched represented by wildlife and large expanses of beautiful land (savannah). While this is may be the case, this is not entirely representative of the African reality so to speak and in this case Kenya. Today’s Kenya is extensively occupied (overpopulated), the wildlife are in the parks (most of your average Kenyans cannot afford to visit a national park). All I’m saying as film makers and western writers depict Kenya for instance they truly should portray all these realities. Secondly, when they talk about the people its another extreme- its poverty. The reality once again (not to belabor the point) is not represented – its not one or the other, its a complicated mix, its a growing middle class, its poverty, its beauty, and its people you cannot alienate these issues from one another.
    I remember driving with my four year old niece (Nairobi born and bred) through the Rift Valley and on seeing zebras in a savannah landscape immediately she said “that looks like Africa” in reference to the movie Madagascar which she had watched the previous day. So what does that tell you? Africa portrayed as savannah and animals, she has seen zebras but not in a large expansive piece of land. To her Africa is this place that she saw in Madagascar that she equated to what she was seeing as we drove.
    All I’m saying is westerners have to dissociate from the century old mentality of a serene place where you go to escape nature to meet the wild e.t.c.

  5. HABIBA,just to add on what you have said….Am a kenyan….and i know no other home….Kenyan is just like other places of the world…i normally get suprised or rather irritated when i see the westerners coming over so prepared like they are going into a jungle…LOL.you dont need to dress heavily in boots and heavy cloths to protect yourselves….Kenya,and i assume the rest of Africa, is just like any other place of the world….we have buildings,we have cars….we have toys for kids…techonology is big here….ITS NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE IF AT ALL IT WAS….lol

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